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Partnerships and Volunteers Bring a Midwest Wetland to Life

The wetland in bloom with a more than 100-year-old oak tree standing prominently in the prairie. Natural Land Institute photo.

The wetland in bloom with a more than 100-year-old oak tree standing prominently in the prairie. Natural Land Institute photo.

Now, when you look at the Nygren Wetland Preserve in Illinois, a menagerie of wildlife can be seen –  ducks and geese paddling about, white pelicans lounging, otters swimming and a pair of sandhill cranes huddling in a nest. There was talk of the endangered blanding turtles living in the wetland, too. It’s a wonderful scene, but it was much different 14 years ago.

The land, located along Raccoon Creek at the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica rivers, was once forests and crops. The Natural Land Institute purchased the land in 1999, and that’s when transformation began.

The institute works to create an enduring legacy of natural land in northern Illinois for people, plants and animals. The wetland was made possible by the institute’s partnership with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, along with a trust given to the institute by the Nygren family.

NRCS provided $1 million toward the purchase of the 655-acre easement from the land’s original owner.

Flooded cropland that eventually became Nygren Wetland Preserve. Natural Land Institute photo.

Flooded cropland that eventually became Nygren Wetland Preserve. Natural Land Institute photo.

The land was enrolled in the former Wetlands Reserve Program, which provides financial assistance for restoring wetlands. The 2014 Farm Bill replaced that program with the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which has similar goals.

“NRCS assistance and countless other partners have helped with developing this property into what it is today and for the general public to enjoy on a daily basis,” said Josh Franks, NRCS district conservationist in Winnebago County, Ill. “I think we all should feel good about that.”

The Nygren Wetland Preserve includes six types of plant communities, including wetlands, prairie and woodlands. Each requires specific management and maintenance that include re-seeding and prescribed burns. The burns reduce the unwanted plants and stimulate the native grasses.

“It has been great working with the entire NLI staff at the Nygren WRP site,” Franks said. “They truly are great conservation stewards and protect the valuable natural resources in northern Illinois.”

An extensive flood in 2005 caused reed canary grass to take over a portion of the wetland. Reed canary grass is an invasive species that will overtake native plants if not controlled.

Kevin Rohling talks about the plants in the wetland with Josh Franks, NRCS district conservationist, and Ellen Starr, NRCS area biologist. NRCS photo.

Kevin Rohling talks about the plants in the wetland with Josh Franks, NRCS district conservationist, and Ellen Starr, NRCS area biologist. NRCS photo.

“We have an ongoing attempt to eradicate the invasive grass,” said Kevin Rohling, the institute’s stewardship director.

The institute also has a reed canary grass experiment plot. “We are attempting to see if we can eradicate the grass without using herbicides,” Rohling said, saying they clip seed heads before seeds are naturally dispersed by the plant.

The institute intends to restore the wetland with original grasses and forbs. “Seeds are collected on site, and if not available, we reach out to surrounding areas for those hard to find seeds,” Rohling said.

Years ago, Raccoon Creek was straightened to improve farming activities. When deciding how to return the stream to its meandering state, it was discovered the old stream channel was still intact.  Dikes were placed to force the water back to the original channel. Three years later, a study on the meandering creek showed there was a 100 percent increase in fish species and 1,000 percent increase in fish abundance.

Partnerships and volunteers have made this wetland what it is today and the volunteers are the heart of the preserve.

The Nygren Wetland Preserve not only has tremendous volunteer support but is also located next to three forest preserves. The contiguous preserves provide a large nesting, breeding and flyway for birds, amphibians and mammals, not to mention the enjoyment and educational opportunities for local residents.

As beautiful as it is today, the Nygren Wetland Preserve maintenance and support is ongoing. “We are currently assisting them with a restoration contract approved last year to manage 36 acres of reed canary grass and 156 acres of prescribed burning in 2014 and 2015,” Franks said. “They are always excited to try new things at the property and I anticipate us assisting when we are able to in the future.”

White pelicans enjoy a rest before moving on to more northern nesting grounds. Courtesy of Mark Blassage.

White pelicans enjoy a rest before moving on to more northern nesting grounds. Courtesy of Mark Blassage.

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